Talking Baseball

Your weekday baseball fix. Some days.

Posted by Ben K. on Monday, June 07, 2004

The Meaning of the All-Star Game

Last week, Major League Baseball released the first of its weekly All Star voting updates. The point of these updates, it seems, is to get fans to vote for their favorite players who may or may not be leading the voting at any given week. It's a great marketing ploy designed to attract increased interest to the Midsummer Classic and to draw casual fans to MLB.com as they vote over and over again for their favorite players. But there are also some inherent drawbacks to this marketing campaign.

Let's take a look at the stats of the top five shortstop vote-getters in the American League.

1. Nomar Garciaparra: 412,742 votes. But he has yet to play this season due to injuries.
2. Derek Jeter: 396,268 votes. He's hitting 233/.290/.388 with 7 HR and 27 RBI.
3. Miguel Tejada: With 299,517 votes, Tejada is hitting 310/.371/.471 with 8 HR and 43 RBI.
4. Michael Young: young has 292,763 votes, and he is currently at .326/.359/.506 with 8 HR, 35 RBI, and 37 runs scored.
5. David Eckstein: Eckstein, who is not Jewish despite many people's thoughts to the contrary, has 95,450. He's hitting .300/.354/.358 with 0 HR and 11 RBI.

And here are the numbers of one more shortstop in the American League, Carlos Guillen who is currently playing in one of the worst hitters' parks in the Majors. He is hitting .325/.402/.560 with 8 HR, 35 RBI, and 41 runs scored. While these numbers may make Carlos Guillen the league's best shortstop, through June 6, he hasn't even won enough fan support to edge out David Eckstein.

How is it that Nomar is first in balloting while the more deserving candidates are over 100,000 votes behind the leader and arguably the most deserving shortstop is at least 320,000 votes behind Nomar? I think it's all part of the way the casual baseball fan perceives the sports. Earlier this year, Derek's slump, which hopefully is gone, gained a lot of attention. He was constantly featured on the back pages of New York's tabloids and ESPN's Buster Olney wrote a lengthy article about the slump. Any fan hearing snippets of news from the Bronx would automatically associate Derek Jeter's 2004 campaign with a slump. On the flip side, no one's heard anything about Nomar. In this people's minds, I propose, no news must be good news. Therefore, Nomar's probably hitting over .300 with a lot of RBIs and some home runs. With Jeter slumping and no attention paid to Nomar, Garciaparra becomes the de facto name-recognition favorite. Forget the more deserving Tejada, Young, or Guillen. The fans will vote for their favorite name. So far, Nomar wins.

Moving beyond shortstop, the news grows stranger. As of last Tuesday, Alfonso Soriano was the lead vote-getting, gaining over 700,000 votes so far this season. Soriano's numbers are pretty good so far. He's at .284/326/.431 with 7 home runs, 32 RBIs, and only 21 runs scored. Yet, compared to 2003, Soriano's stats are hardly remarkable. Through June 6, 2003, Soriano was hitting .301/.361/.565 with 18 home runs and 42 RBIs while leading off for the Yankees. This year, his worse stats are happening while he hits third for the offensively-powerful Texas Rangers in one of the best hitting parks in the league. But again, Soriano was the guy the Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez. Since the media has certainly noticed that the Rangers are better without A-Rod, it must be Soriano's doing. Therefore, he gets the votes. While Soriano is probably the AL All Star at second base, I think he's a far cry from the top vote-getter, or best player, in the league this season.

Finally, Johnny Damon in the American League is currently third in the outfield. As Dave recently wrote, most Red Sox fans want Damon off the team. His numbers are incredibly average, and he can't even be lauded for his stole bases as he's only 5 for 9 on the base paths. A more deserving outfielder (Gary Sheffield, Magglio OrdoƱez, Carlos Beltran, Hideki Matsui) should earn the All-Star recognition, but because of the attention paid to his hair, Johnny Damon is suddenly an All Star. That's right; Johnny Damon's hair, the Jesus or caveman look, is the reason he's an All Star. Everyone everywhere has associated Damon with Major League Baseball. It may be only in passing, but news sources have loved Damon's hair this year. The casual fan, when voting for their All Stars, will only think about those players the media has reported on this year. This might be, in Damon's case, about their hair or it might be, in Jeter's case, about a slump. But either way, that loose association gets an All Star vote.

Inherently, there is nothing wrong with the All Star vote being a popularity contest. Major League Baseball wants to draw fans to the All Star game telecast. If the people's true choices are represented on the field, then more people will watch. If those 400,000 people who voted for Nomar all tune in to watch their choice play, that's clearly more than the less than 95,000 who may have voted for Carlos Guillen. And more viewers equals more money in the minds of MLB. But the problem arises when the All Star counts. And as we all know and are constantly reminded by the marketing geniuses at MLB, "this year, it counts." If the All Star game counts, and it does now determine home field advantage in the World Series (or whether the Yankees will play three games at home or four), then the voting procedure no longer fits the format.

Since the game counts, the players, coaches, and managers will want to see the best players in the league out on the field. Each team now has added incentive to win the game, and to do so means putting forward the team of the players who have performed the best this year. Yet, the fans want to see their favorites. They want to see the Nomar's and the Derek's. They don't want to see Carlos Guillen. (I mean, really, who is Carlos Guillen anyway? In the mind of an ordinary fan, he's the starting shortstop for a team that lost 119 games last year.) In my view, Major League Baseball has to figure out how to reconcile these two conflicting wishes. MLB cannot put forward the most attractive players based on fan preference while the teams are supposed to be playing for the ever-important home field advantage. Whether it's giving the managers, players, coaches, or even scouts more say in the process, or restructuring fan voting, if Bud Selig is serious about the "this time, it counts" message, it's also time to figure out a way to get the best teams on the field while giving the fans what they want: the celebrity players.

Five Disappointments, Revisited

In one of my last posts, I wrote about my top five disappointments of the 2004 season. My list included Derek Jeter, Jose Contreras, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Delgado, and Albert Pujols. I also asked you the reader to vote on your top disappointment. While I awarded the booby prize to Contreras, the readers thought Derek was more deserving. With a new poll up on the All Star game, here's how the last poll broke down.

Contreras received 7 votes or 13 percent of the total.
Jeter received 29 votes or 55 percent.
Huff received 5 votes or 9 percent.
Delgado received 8 votes or 15 percent.
Pujols received 3 votes or 6 percent.
Other received 1 vote, but I don't know who that was because the person didn't leave a comment.

Anyway, since that post, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter have both broken out of their slumps. Pujols now leads the majors in home runs and he's hitting .325 while Derek's raised his average nearly 40 points in the last week and a half. On the other hand, Contreras was pulled after 1/3 of an inning last week, so I can't say the same for him. But maybe, just maybe, my post has the same pull of the Sports Illustrated cover. It's a jinx. It's a nice thought at least.

So there's a new poll up. Go vote. I'll let you know about the results soon enough. And I just wanted to say thank you to all of our readers. Sometime this weekend, we reached 10,000 viewers since we started back in January. Hopefully, we'll continue to grow as the season goes on.

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